Life is “nasty, brutish and short” - at least that’s what 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes had to say about it. Whilst Hobbes might have been talking about turbulent Civil War-era England, this sentiment just as easily applies to the violent world of 70s Boston, over which James ‘Whitey’ Bulger ruled in a territorial reign of terror.
It was hardly just his enemies that had to worry about having short lives or nasty, brutish deaths. Black Mass barely reaches the ten-minute mark before the viewer is treated to two vicious beatings and it becomes clear his crew in the Winter Hill Gang are as likely to be on the receiving end of them as any rival gangster or law enforcement official.
Utilising a non-linear narrative arc, director Scott Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth switch between scenes that show Whitey’s former gangbangers alternately ratting him out as well as confessing to their own crimes in FBI interviews following his capture in 2011, and scenes from his 70s and 80s heyday as the corrupt ‘bishop of South Boston’. The story only starts to get underway though when childhood pal John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), now an FBI agent, looks up Whitey (Johnny Depp) and offers him a deal: if he informs on the Angiulo, Italian-American mobsters and Winter Hill’s turf rivals, then the FBI in turn will lock them up and furthermore, turn a blind eye to his drug dealing and racketeering – as long as he doesn’t commit any murders. Thus enabled by Connolly’s inexplicably affectionate goodwill, which seems to come down to a shared history of them both being “Southie boys”, and shielded by his state senator brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), Whitey quickly flouts the no-killings caveat and ascends from small town mob boss to crime kingpin and “ripened psychopath” in the words of FBI bigwig Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon).
On film, there’s little distinction between Whitey pre- and post- his ‘unholy alliance’ with the Feds, except his viciousness has carte blanche now. Johnny Depp’s no stranger to playing thugs and gangsters - seen by his turns as John Dillinger in Public Enemies, or most famously, as the title role in Donnie Brasco - but as Jimmy Bulger he plumbs chilling depths of depravity and menace. More bloodless than cold-blooded, Depp’s cadaverous appearance – a feat of prostheses and cosmetics that took hours to achieve – is utterly intimidating, with his sterile eyes, greyish-green skin, decaying teeth and jaw set in a permanent, deadly grimace. It’s certainly effective at highlighting his monstrous personality, but it’s also distracting at times, as though he’s acting through a thick mask. He’s less like a real man and more like Nosferatu or a shark in human form. Even the brief flashes of humanity that peek through, like helping an elderly lady in his neighbourhood or giving wildly inappropriate advice to his young son, don’t serve to illuminate his nature any further and leave him shrouded in the shadows, as many shots in the film do.
Perhaps that’s intentional. For the film is really about the myth rather than the actual man, particularly as he’s seen through the eyes of his FBI handler, John Connolly. Edgerton’s Connolly is the perfect foil to Depp’s sullen, emotionless Bulger, with his vain, preening machismo and blustering bravado; he becomes so unpleasantly arrogant as his career profits via his deal with Whitey, that he may as well have BENT COP stamped on his forehead. Edgerton’s solid performance is just one in an ensemble cast of fantastic actors, including Kevin Bacon as his well-meaning but almost unbelievably incompetent superior McGuire, who seems to know that Bulger and Connolly are conning the department but can’t prove it, or lacks the will to. And Peter Sarsgaard as jittery and doomed coke addict Brian Halloran is a study in tragicomedy. Only Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger falls flat: an odd casting choice for a tangential role, he has little to do, and lends the notoriously difficult-to-nail Boston accent a false and clunky tone.
True to genre conventions, it comes as no surprise that a film about gangsters is a bit of a boy’s club, with the women in it relegated to the sidelines. Lyndsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson) plays a stereotypically fraught gangster girlfriend whilst Juno Temple has a brief but affecting cameo as a teenage streetwalker. However, it’s Julianne Nicholson as Connolly’s suspicious wife who’s given the screen time and the fleshed-out characterisation that allows her role to have more of an impact: a domestic scene, involving a quiet confrontation between her and Bulger is unparalleled in the terror it evokes, and that’s quite an achievement in a film as bloody and violent as this.
Despite the assembly of a fantastic ensemble cast and the use of source material that tells the unique story of America’s most-wanted (after Bin Laden) Black Mass is executed well in some ways and falls short in others. As a period piece it’s impressive, and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi has a lot to do with that. He deftly paints the Boston of 1975 in a desaturated palette to foreground its bleak and grimy aspects, which is especially effective during the brief panoramic shots of the Massachusetts skyline and the close-ups of “Southie”, the city’s blue-collar, Irish-Catholic neighbourhood, with its cramped tenements and narrow streets. As a mob film? It’s so-so. Not a patch on The Departed, not as funny as Goodfellas and lacking the charm of this years’ Legend, the other major gangster biopic of 2015, Black Mass is annoyingly inconsistent. The pacing is awkward and uneven and aside from its periodic outbreaks of brutal violence, often foreshadowed by an elegiac orchestral score, it’s a strangely quiet and glum affair. With no real peaks and troughs to distinguish one part of the film from any other, the two-hour runtime drags on to an inevitably anticlimactic close. When all’s said and done, the viewer’s left none the wiser to who Jimmy Bulger really is and why he turned out the way he did.